There was a slight chill in the Massachusetts air on the evening of February 13, 1818, which caused frost to gather around the windows of the houses in Quincy. From one window on 1250 Hancock Street, a frail old man could be seen sitting in front of a roaring fire, leaning over a dark cherry wooden writing table. The vigor of youth had long departed him: curly white hair made its way around the back and sides of his head, wrinkles covered his face, his right hand trembled like the world had trembled in his youth, and, according to him, his piercing blue eyes had become rusty.
Every pair of eyes holds a story, but this man’s eyes were filled with them. They proudly watched the proclamation of the American Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. They looked on in wonder at Versailles Palace, the home of the French King Louis XVI. They analyzed Pieterskirk Church’s structure in Leiden, where his Puritan forefathers had once worshiped. And in admiration, they watched George Washington become the first President of the United States of America in 1789. All in the name of patriotism.
This patriotism never left John Adams, and on this cold evening, it flowed from his pen. As he sat before the crackling fire, he lowered his trembling right hand onto the desk and asked Hezekiah Niles, the American publisher, “But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the war?” No, Adams concluded. “The revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties” before the war had even taken place.
Adams’s reference to religion implies that it was a significant part of his life. His religion revolved around the idea of human progress and was infused with the Puritan focus on education. Ultimately, Adams’s Revolutionary experience was one dominated by the need to ensure that humanity’s progress continued, which would allow the whole world to live in a place of happiness and liberty.
Adams claimed in 1823 that he was “born and bred in the centre of Theological and Ecclesiastical controversy.” Born in 1735, he was raised during the Enlightenment; a time in which new ideas spread and revolutionized thinking. Such ideas, like John Locke’s tabula rasa theory, made inroads in colonial society, as did ideas that connected morality and humanity. However, the emergence of these new ideas clashed with the First Great Awakening’s resurrection of religious emotionalism and faith in God.
The Awakening divided the colonial Congregational Churches. This period marked a shift in colonial religious thought as many began to move away from the traditional Calvinist doctrine of total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saint. The Awakening established two groups within the Congregational churches: the “New Lights” and “Old Lights.” The former group affirmed their commitment to God through blind faith and continued to subscribe to the traditional Calvinist doctrine. The latter, however, distanced themselves from such inflexible doctrines and started to practice liberal theology, also known as liberal Christianity. The New York Observer and Chronicle perfectly captured liberal theology’s revolutionary dimensions when it explained, “[Liberal theology] never encourages any rigid religious observances or a literal obedience of God’s world. ‘Liberal Christianity’ . . . leaves man to pursue . . . a course of normal and religious disciplines as suits their state.” Essentially, it allowed man to mold his own convictions and life to God’s model. Gary Dorrien argues that the liberal theological preachers, like Jonathon Mayhew and Lemuel Briant, wanted Christianity to incorporate ideas from the Enlightenment, which would then allow Christianity to impact the world in a positive way.
Liberal theology arrived in Adams’s life when he was approximately thirteen years old—a period in life where the human brain is known to be more receptive to new ideas and beliefs—and we can trace a significant shift in his religious thinking after his encounter with the tradition in 1749. It was around this time that he started to distance himself from Calvinism and showed an increasing dislike for dogmatic religion.
Adams listened to Briant preach his 1749 sermon, The Absurdity and Blasphemy of Depreciating Moral Values. The sermon outraged the “Ecclesiastical Councils” since it dismissed traditional Calvinist doctrine, advocated sovereignty over religious thought, and preached the need for humanity’s progression. Adams watched as the “Ecclesiastical Councils” met at his father’s house and, with an air of “Dogmatism and Bigotry,” discussed Briant’s conduct. After witnessing this, Adams feared he could not follow his father into a religious career because he would continually conflict with the council, which would make his “Life miserable without any prospect of doing any good” to humanity.
Adams’s second interaction with liberal theology came in 1750 when Mayhew preached his sermon A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Obedience to the Higher Powers. For Adams, Mayhew was a “transcendent genius” and one of the “most influential” people of the Revolutionary period. He later told Thomas Jefferson that Mayhew’s sermon “was incorporated into [his] nature and indelibly engraved on [his] memory.”
While Mayhew continued Briant’s theme of freedom of religious thought, he also connected religion and politics, expressing his anxiety over the idea of a combined church and state. Mayhew insisted the people must be vigilant about despotism within the political and religious spheres; the pair could cooperate to enslave the people by making them believe that God had stated they must be obedient to their rulers. To avoid this, Mayhew said, the people had to have supreme control over their religious thought; if they could do this, then they would realize that God had always wanted them to be a free people.He then returned to the principles of the colonists’ Puritan ancestors when he highlighted the colonists’ right to justified rebellion. He argued that if the ruler governed for the good of the public welfare, then the subjects should remain obedient and loyal. However, he claimed, if the ruler was to “rob and ruin the public, instead of being guardians of its peace and welfare, they immediately cease to be the ordinance and ministers of God.” Rebellion, therefore, was not sinful but justified: the ruler had broken their relationship with God by enslaving his people and making them unhappy.
Briant and Mayhew’s sermons shaped Adams’s religious thought. He concluded that man should be allowed to form their opinions about both God and the world. In 1755, he discussed his decision to reject a religious career with his friend Nathan Webb: “I shall have liberty to think for myself without molesting others or being molested [himself].” This liberal stance is even more evident when read alongside Adams’s other early letters and diary entries and discover his anti-Calvinist leanings. His son, John Quincy Adams, and grandson, Charles Francis Adams, later wrote that he detested Calvinism because it was a “domineering and persecuting spirit.”In 1755, Adams labeled Calvinism and John Calvin “frigid” and went on to write to his brother-in-law, Richard Cranch, in 1756, that “the frightful Engines of Ecclesiastical Co[u]ncils . . . and Calvinistical good nature” led him to reject a career in preaching. That same year, Adams dismissed the idea of total depravity in his diary; he could not understand how mankind was punished “by the Supreme being” because of “their own Wickedness and Vice.” In a 1761 letter to his cousin, Samuel Quincy, he proclaimed unconditional election to be “hurtful” and “detestable,” limited atonement to be a “strange religious dogma,” and the perseverance of the saints to be simply outlandish.
His liberal theology developed concurrently with this anti-Calvinist phase. C. Bradley Thompson argues that through the late 1750s and 1760s, Adams established his theory of religion, which revolved around Locke’s theory of tabula rasa. Locke’s thesis rejects the notion of innate ideas, especially the idea of God; instead, it suggests that man should use his experience through the five senses to find God for themselves. Once humans had these experiences, they would then use their rationality, which, Adams argued, God had gifted them to reach a valid conclusion. Once humans had attained enough knowledge and cultivated their rationality, they would then discover why God had put humanity on Earth. Adams explicitly stated this as he wrote in his diary, in 1756, “[God] has given me reason, to find out the truth and the real design of my existence here.” Additionally, he concluded that the “proper Business of Mankind” was not to chase the “Shadows, and empty but glittering Phantoms” of rank and money but the “everlasting Excellences of Piety and Virtue.” God had wanted man to take care of each other and gain God’s favor by doing this and showing continual devotion to God. This ultimately enabled mankind to live a happy life while allowing for human evolution.
This period impacted upon Adams’s revolutionary experience in a significant way; he now found himself with a new belief that, in part, revolved around caring for others. The Revolution, therefore, was seen by Adams as an event that allowed him to help his fellow man.
However, his belief in attaining knowledge to discover his moral duties highlights another aspect of his thought, which also appeared in much of his Revolutionary writings. Adams deeply believed in education and, in turn, his prolonged attachment to some of the Puritan traits prevalent during his childhood.
Adams expressed this belief in his 1765 A Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law, which he wrote at the height of the Stamp Act crisis and when rumors within the colonies suggested the British would install a bishop in America. Although Adams refers to this piece of writing as “lamentable bagatelle” and historians, like Page Smith and Anne Husted Burleigh, describe it as historically inaccurate, one cannot help but agree with David McCullough’s assertion that Dissertation is one of Adams’s most important works.
His focus on the colonists’ Puritan ancestry—who had moved to the New World to escape persecution in England—meant Dissertationwas an early glimpse into Adams’s patriotic zeal. He claimed the Puritans arrived with traditional British rights and created a society based on “universal liberty, and a hatred, a dread, a horror, of the infernal confederacy” of ecclesiastical and civil tyranny. For Adams, knowledge, which consequently meant education, was what maintained this Utopian society since education provided new experiences for man.
Adams’s strong attachment to knowledge is evident when he insisted in Dissertation that knowledge was an essential defense mechanism against tyranny—his argument as a whole was a carbon copy of Mayhew’s in 1750. He concluded that when “a general knowledge and sensibility have prevailed among the people” tyranny would be nonexistent. In the opening line, he quoted John Tillotson, former Archbishop of Canterbury: “Ignorance and inconsideration are the two greatest causes of the ruin of mankind.” Adams then highlighted how the Puritans established grammar schools and colleges as a means of ensuring people attained knowledge. Elsewhere in Dissertation, he suggested that when people managed to attain a great deal of knowledge, this meant they could act as a balance against the church and the ruler, which would then prevent a “great and detestable system of fraud, violence and usurpation.”
Adams saw tyranny as a real concern. “Timidity,” he claimed, had implemented itself within the American mind: they feared to investigate the natural rights they held, such as liberty. Dissertation was a call to books rather than arms. Adams demanded the colonists attain knowledge as a means of returning to their Puritan roots so that they could oppose tyranny. This demand is evidence of a humanist strand that existed in Adams’s religious thinking: once the colonists had achieved a substantial amount of knowledge, then they, from Adams’s perspective, would realize that their duties were to respect God and one another. This further meant that the colonists had to unite to protect mankind from the tyrannical British Empire.
In 1774 and 1775, Adams continued to explore the ideas that were in Dissertationthrough several essays he produced in reaction to the Tory, Daniel Leonard. Under the pseudonym “Novanglus,” Adams addressed the contemporary constitutional conflict that had now been taking place between the British Parliament and colonies for almost a decade and explained why Parliament had no legislative supremacy over the colonies.
Britain held no legislative right over the colonies, he wrote, because America had been a country before the Puritans had arrived—they bought the land from the natives. Thus, Adams insisted, “America was no more within the allegiance of those princes [King James and Charles], by the common law of England, or by the law of nature, than France and Spain were.” While English law did not extend to America, the ancient English constitution did, for it contained “certain rights of nature” that the Puritans had brought over with them in the 17th century. British Parliament infringed upon these “rights of nature” when it tried to tax the colonists in the 1760s and 1770s directly and without any colonial representation in Parliament. Adams then continued the theme of justified rebellion and denied the colonists were rebelling; authority, he insisted, lay with the colonial assemblies, not Parliament. Therefore, it was colonial “opposition, nay, open, avowed, resistance by arms, against [the British Parliament’s] usurpation and lawless violence.”
Novanglus is even more important than Dissertation; it was through these writings Adams laid bare his concern for the Revolution. He heightened his rhetoric on morality as he wrote: “Liberty can no more exist without virtue . . . than the body can live and move without a soul.” Adams believed morality to be imperative for man’s freedom and, consequently, stressed the need, once again, for education and knowledge; if education were to decline or become nonexistent, then the colonists would also descend into tyranny. His stress upon morality helps to explain why Adams was so against violent resistance and wanted a peaceful end to the dispute between the two warring parties. In a 1774 letter to Abigail Adams, he expressed his distaste for violence, explaining that mob rule was the source “of all kinds of Evils, Vices and Crimes”: swearing, drunkenness, murder and blasphemy were such acts that proved some men were unable to fill their moral duties. Man had to resist peacefully by using knowledge and education to identify where the ruler had overstepped and then negotiate the balance of power. Mob rule, Adams suggested, led to ignorance and “Almost all of mankind have lost their liberties through ignorance.”
Adams’s religious beliefs affected his Revolutionary experience, as he found himself at odds with many colonists who participated in the mobbish rule he detested so much: their actions did not correspond with Adams’s belief in man showing respect for one another. This sort of immoral behavior that mobs exhibited hindered human progress, which then prevented man from living in a society built upon everlasting happiness and liberty. For Adams, the Revolution’s raisin d’être was about maintaining this Utopian society that the Puritans had established in the 17th century. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which Adams wrote, similarly brings out this desire to maintain this Puritan ideal.
Here, it is apparent that Adams wanted a society that resembled that of his Puritan forefathers and he regurgitated themes that were evident in Dissertation and Novanglus. In the opening sentences of the Preamble, Adams reiterated Mayhew and the Whig principle of man being allowed to revolt against arbitrary authority. However, what was perhaps more noteworthy was his assertion that humans agree to a covenant with each other—not God—and that society would work towards humanity’s progress. This was made explicitly clear in one statement that stressed the need for the co-operation of mankind: “It is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.” The fact that the agreement is between men and not man and God suggests Adams believed man’s mutual respect for each other was just as important as man respecting God. Significantly, it demonstrated the change in duties that man now held, which Adams discussed in 1818: no longer did men see themselves bound to God; instead, they were bound to each other. Nevertheless, Adams also insisted that it was “the right as well as the duty of all men in society . . . to worship the Supream Being,” which stressed his belief that showing obedience to God was a means of ensuring a better afterlife.
Numerous theological historians and Adams biographers stress the fact that Adams strongly believed in human progress. Much of their evidence comes from Adams’s later years when he wrote to his friend Jefferson. On July 16, 1814, Adams wrote to Jefferson, “I have no doubt that the horrors we have experienced for the last forty years, will ultimately terminate in the advancement of civil and religious liberty, and ameliorations in the conditions of mankind.” In 1821, Adams then wrote to Jefferson that he wished “for the splendid improvements in human society, and vast amelioration in the condition of mankind.”
Adams’s belief in the deity of Jesus Christ corresponded with his idea of humankind’s evolution and faith in the unification of humanity. In his diary, Adams refused to reject the miracles and deity of Christ, for Christ’s miracles reconciled man with one another and God. Far too many humans, Adams claimed, had “sunk in to the grossest Opinions and the grossest Practices”; the appearance of Christ and his miracles consequently allowed man to realize his errors and thus change their ways. Therefore, Christ was on Earth to enable human progression. Christ’s role seamlessly fitted into Adams’s revolutionary convictions: when Christ died the mission of human progress was left for somebody else to pick up, but as time progressed, tyranny slowly took over the world and retarded human progression. The American Revolution, therefore, was viewed as picking up the pieces of Christ’s legacy and trying to piece them back together. Adams’s Revolution was as much about patriotism as it was about religion.
Historians popularly claim Adams adhered to Unitarianism, with many highlighting Adams’s supposed total rejection of Christ as evidence of this: John Fea, Staloff, Burleigh, John Ferlin and Edwin Gaustad are all guilty of making this assumption. Fea argues Adams was a “devout Unitarian” because he believed humans to be breaking the first commandment by revering Christ as God. Gaustad claims Adams was incredulous when John Quincy told him he believed in Athanasianism. For Staloff, Adams simply rejected Christ’s divinity and the Trinity in his twenties. Moreover, Ferling concludes Adams rejected Christ’s divinity and considered institutional Christianity to be full of charlatans and myths. Burleigh, however, makes a different argument claiming that Adams adhered to Unitarianism since it allowed him to think for himself instead of having opinions forced upon him.
Howard I. Fielding comes closest to identifying Adams’s religion, though he is also guilty of identifying him as a Unitarian. He writes that although contemporaries and historians alike have called Adams a Unitarian, we must be cautious: the Unitarianism “of [Adams’s] time . . . was a time before that of [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and [Theodore] Parker” in the nineteenth century. Staloff states Adams’s religion took a “liberal posture”—it was a religion infused with rationality, restraint, and respect. Additionally, he argued, Adams adapted to other virtues and recognized church orders. This adaptation and appropriation from other traditions makes it difficult for historians to conclude what Adams’s religious beliefs were in any definitive sense.
What historians have failed to realize is that Adams’s religion can be accurately labeled as liberal Congregationalism. However, we can sympathize with historians, for liberal Congregationalism served as a bridge between Congregationalism and Unitarianism: liberal Congregationalism was an outgrowth of the First Great Awakening and the division it created—many Old Lights drifted toward liberal Congregationalism. This belief effectively built the foundations upon which Unitarianism was erected in the 19th century. The faiths, therefore, shared much of the same tenets: religious tolerance, sovereignty over religious thought, a belief in rationalism being used to find God, and a rejection of the traditional Calvinist doctrine.
But there was more to liberal Congregationalism than this. Mark A. Noll writes that there existed four distinct traits within liberal Congregationalism, all of which Adams exhibited during his Revolutionary experience. First, a disdain for Calvinism; something Adams displayed throughout the 1750s. Second, a placement of rationalism above that of miracles. Thompson testifies to this second aspect, concluding that although there is little evidence left behind to suggest this, Adams did believe in Christ’s miracles. Third, a belief in human progress. And fourth, Noll highlights that liberal Congregationalists believed in God redeeming man one day—something Adams believed in addition to believing that God redeemed humans who showed respect to their fellow man.
The American Revolution, therefore, went beyond the widely agreed year of 1763. Adams argued that it stretched as far back as the 1740s and 1750s when man’s religious duties began to shift as it did for Adams when he interacted with liberal theology in 1749 and 1750. Following these experiences, and throughout the 1750s, Adams applied Locke’s theory of tabula rasa to his increasingly cultivated religious beliefs. When man attained enough knowledge from their experiences this allowed them to discover their moral duties; one crucial moral duty, from Adams’s perspective, was that man should show respect for one another, which would enable human progression. To Adams, the Revolution was a means of ensuring that man continued to progress. If the Revolution failed, then the Utopian society that Adams’s and the other colonists’ Puritan forefathers had tried to establish would descend into tyranny. In essence, Adams saw the Revolution as the opportunity to create this Utopian society, where man had the liberty to think and do what it wanted. Consequently, when Adams wrote that the Revolution was in the peoples’ duties, it can be argued that this was because man’s religious sentiments no longer focused on the bond between humans and God; rather the bond was now between humans, as well as with God. Adams was a liberal Congregationalist: Adams’s anti-Calvinism, his belief in human evolution and rationality, and his belief that through caring for one another God would then redeem mankind. Ultimately, Adams was an innovator in thinking and an extraordinary man who held extraordinary beliefs.
C. F. Adams, J. Q. Adams, J. Adams (eds.), The World of John Adams: Second President of the United States, With a Life of the Author, I-X (Boston, 1856), X, p.172. [Henceforth referred to as Works].
D. Staloff, ‘John Adams and Enlightenment’ in Waldstreicher (eds.), 2013, pp.36-59; Howe, 1966, p.40; M. Lienesch, New Order of the Ages: Time, The Constitution and The Making of Modern American Political Thought (Princeton, 1988), p.195, n.53.
J. Adams to T. Jefferson, 24 Sep. 1821 quoted in L. J. Cappon (ed.), The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson & Abigail & John Adams (Chapel Hill, 1959), p.576.
Athanasianism was one of the first and most ancient theologies that believed in the Holy Trinity. Fea in Waldstreicher (ed.), 2013, pp.184-198; Idem., Was America Founded as a Christian Nation (Louisville, 2011), p.191; Staloff in Waldstreicher (ed.), 2013, pp.36-59; Idem., ‘Deism and the Founding of the United States’, 2008, [Accessed Online: 21 February 2016], http://nationalhumanitiescentre.org/tserve/eighteen/ekeyinfo/deism.htm; Burleigh, 2010, p.12; J. Ferling, John Adams (Oxford, 2010), p.384; E. S. Gaustad, Faith of our Fathers (London, 1987), p.90.